I wanted to describe the world, because to live in an undescribed world was too lonely. Nicole Krauss
When I write something, I’m not really writing for anyone but myself. I’m not trying to impress, persuade, or communicate with someone. Rather I’m writing to see if I can and can do it reasonably well. At least that is what I thought until I read an essay by Jhumpa Lahiri which was soon thereafter reinforced in a lecture I heard Zadie Smith deliver.
In her essay New Yorker (June 13th-20th) essay Lahari says when she began to write it was to connect with another person. “When I began to make friends, writing was the vehicle. So that in the beginning, writing, like reading, was less a solitary pursuit than an attempt to connect with others. I did not write alone but with another student in my class at school.”
This statement brought me to a halt. I had just written about the preoccupation young people have today connecting via the various digital technologies available to them. I was worried that they no longer knew how to be alone and spend time with themselves. Lahiri’s statement implies that perhaps writers in all their solitude are simply doing the same thing—trying in their way to connect with other people.
This seemed to me a bit of an insight. Perhaps I’m not writing for myself, at least not exclusively. Rather I may be writing just as much for my readers, however few there are, in the manner I can connect with them best. And how much different is that than connecting with someone online or on your cellphone?
It has been said that we search for company in literature. Is that any different than searching for company online? Imagine a person who reads all day in the company of their fictional friends. Is this person doing anything different than a young kid texting all day or sending messages to their e-mail buddies?
Of course, these questions are difficult to answer. But Lahiri’s simple statement in her essay did bring them into focus.
In How to Read and Why Harold Bloom comments that the search for friendship is one of the reasons we read. “Because you can know, intimately only a very few people, and perhaps you never know them at all. After reading The Magic Mountain you know Hans Castorp thoroughly, and he is greatly worth knowing.”
Of course, we read for other reasons too and we surely write for an equal number of reasons. But perhaps one of them is the search for friendship. I may error in thinking that we might be motivated to write in order to communicate with our peers, our friends, and other largely anonymous readers. Perhaps this expands the notion of “connecting” too broadly so that it covers too much of what we do, thereby rendering it untestable.
I have written a fair amount on writing and until recently did not view as a social activity. But I’ve been led to reconsider that view in light of the stream of questions Lahiri’s essay led me to and, by a strange co-incidence, a lecture I heard Zadie Smith give the other day in Florence. To be continued.